While violent prayers - binding and casting Satan to dungeons, the Sahara Desert or other horrible places of the earth - thundered past her head by members of the Prayer Warriors unit, Agbenu's mouth moved quaveringly and wordlessly as if she was uttering deep groaning of the spirit. All of a sudden, she could see clearly the subterfuge of the enemy. Why did Otokpa have to bring up the issue of Sister Naomi on the very day that she wanted to accept his proposal? An enemy had done it. While men slept, the enemy sowed tares that choked the growth of life's cereals. Didn't a prophet of God once tell her some years ago during a revival crusade that until she first dealt with the spirit husband in her life, marriage would always be a mirage on the asphalt road of her life? As a little child of five or thereabouts, she remembered, she had gone to the river with some of her older siblings to wash their clothing and cooking utensils, preparatory to the Easter festivity. In the usual manner of little children, while the adults were engrossed in their tasks, nobody knew when she went close to the river until the unspeakable happened. Something too horrible to behold, emerged from the river, and swallowed her up. For about an hour, nobody knew where she was and had even given her up for dead. Submerged in the river, she didn't know where she was, whether she was still alive or dead. All she could now remember, although the memory itself was foggy, was that after a long while in the deep, a fish, a dolphin, to be precise, carried her in its mouth before it spat her on the bank. Her older siblings were nowhere to be found when this happened, except for the clothing and utensils obviously abandoned in their haste to go and inform their parents of the incident. When they came back much later with what appeared like the whole village in tow, they found her seated on a solitary rock near the spot where she had been deposited, calm and collected as if nothing had happened. Could she count the number of times this spirit husband invaded her dreams since that first encounter, until she attained adulthood? On several occasions, she would wake up in the morning and feel some wetness in her pubic area as if she had been sexually abused the previous night. It was not until the prophet told her that she realized that it was not ordinary, that the black dolphin that carried her in its mouth was the spirit husband still troubling her, tormenting the life out of her. He was the King of the Coast. When the nightly event seemed to go on unceasingly, she approached a Prophet who told her that her spirit husband, the King of the Coast, had claimed her as his since she was a child.
Her fellow prayer warriors were done with prayers and were now sending the missiles of fire and brimstone to the devil in their impassioned song:
Send down fire
The Holy Ghost fire
Send down fire again
The Holy Ghost fire.
Brother Otokpa was one of them, eyes shut tight while his clenched fists frenziedly stabbed the air as if he was physically assaulting the devil. He was blind to what she was passing through or perhaps he had consigned her to the dustbin of history and could only think of his life with Sister Naomi, one of the children's Sunday school teachers of the church. Right there and then, her mind was made up. When the prayer-meeting was over, she didn't refuse Brother Amaechi's offer to accompany her home. If anything, it somehow assuaged her of the pain of breaking up with Otokpa. When she noticed he saw them as they left together, a gratifying expression of glee caressed her face, she savoured her revenge, that would show him he wasn't the only man on earth. 'Behold I will do a new thing, can you not see it?'
Her engagement two months later to Brother Amaechi didn't come as a surprise to Brother Otokpa. Perhaps, he didn't love her enough, he told himself as his mind wondered at the deadpan equanimity with which he received the news. All the same, he felt it was rather hurried, no doubt precipitated by strife, borne out of the need to prove that she too was worthy of other men's admiration. If one came to think of it now, was his ephemeral relationship with her not sparked off by strife too? Everything was going on well between him and Sister Naomi before her mother, a meddlesome interloper, came in-between like an evil creeper and strangulated their budding affair of sunlight. When he had had a fill of her mother's temper tantrums, more so because the daughter had no mind of her own except to regurgitate whatever her mother fed her, he took leave of the entire frustrating relationship. This decision came on the heels of a mid-week evening service. Before then, he had been on cordial terms with Sister Agbenu who was a fellow member of the prayer unit of the church. That night, after the service, he sent her an SMS message through his cell phone to ask if he could visit her in her parents' house.
When he got to her house, it was dark, the kind of night that took on the semblance of dusk. It had a faint resemblance to the breaking of dawn, with a lone star in the sky, weeping in isolation. She brought a bench and they sat on it outside. After the usual exchange of cordialities, he told her why he had come, without skirting around the subject as most unbelievers were wont to.
'You've not started talking, Brother Otokpa,' she cut in. 'What shall I tell God? That you want us to be friends? No, no, Brother Otokpa, you've not started talking.'
'I was of the view that from friendship, it would mature into love and before you know it, one could begin to talk of marriage and...'
'In that case, count me out of it,' she said sharply, interrupting him. 'Look, Brother Otokpa, we're covenant children of the Most High, the God of Abraham and all the other patriarchs in the Bible. We're in the world but not of the world. The lives of these patriarchs should always serve as a benchmark for us believers. Look at Isaac, for example. It was on the very day that the servant of his father Abraham brought Rebecca for him that he met his wife for the first time without knowing her from Adam but by the leading of the Holy Spirit. It was the same with our first parent, Adam. Immediately he set eyes on Eve, what did he say? Didn't he call her the "bone of my bones and the flesh of my flesh?" Did he have to ask her to be his friend first?' she asked rather rhetorically.
Otokpa had never seen the like of this. No, not with the way she hardly allowed him to finish a sentence without interrupting him. It was like a dream for him and all he could do intermittently was to mumble incoherently in the affirmative before this loquacious Sister. He had given his life to Christ barely a year ago and was not well armed enough to engage this firebrand Sister in the Lord in a war of Scriptures. That was how Sister Agbenu had her way; browbeat a marriage proposal from him. Since the days of John, the Baptist, the Kingdom of God suffereth violence and didn't the violent take it by force? Even after God had given the Israelites the Promised Land, didn't He still tell them to contend for it in battle in order to possess it by force? Why did the Bible in the Book of Hebrews say that through faith the patriarchs wrought righteousness if not by the force of violence? The violence of faith. Fight the good fight of faith, Apostle Paul exhorted all believers.
It was not long before the wall of their relationship began to show signs of cracks under the heavy weight of irreconcilable differences. Nearly all the crises that beset their fragile relationship had a close or remote affiliation to Sister Naomi, the indissoluble apparition in Otokpa's past, stalking them.
The Wednesday mid-week evening service had commenced at the usual hour of 5pm, when Brother Otokpa and Sister Agbenu arrived together. Immediately they entered the church-hall, they separated to the men's and women's sections respectively. It was during the worship hour when the congregation was under the deep influence of the spirit, hands upheld towards heaven with eyes shut in spiritual ecstasy, that Otokpa saw them enter, Sister Naomi in front with the mother on her heels. Tall, chocolate-coloured, Naomi had a soft, purring voice and a hawk-beak of a nose which he often teased her that he would like to pull caressingly with his hand. When she walked, she moved with the nimble feet of a dancer. The mother, on the other hand, was plump and of a middle height. She had the irascible trace of intolerance etched on her face, with the propensity to flare up at the slightest provocation. During one of her few jovial moments, he was able to gather from her how she and Naomi's father had parted ways a week after she was born when she stumbled on his well-guarded secret of keeping another home outside their marriage.
From where he sat, Otokpa could see mother and daughter somewhat clearly and seized every opportune moment to cast his furtive glances at the latter. What would he not give to make the mother make way for him so that he would sit near the daughter? Needless to say, the sermon that night invariably fell on the rocky path for the birds of the air to peck on. He watched like a vulture any movement Naomi made, like when she whispered something into her mother's ear and the duo shared a secret smile or when her rosebud lips parted in a smile to reveal a corn-row of white teeth anytime the priest cracked a joke. His heart warmed towards her and he craved to protect her from a cruel and loveless world. He felt strangely in his spirit that he belonged to them, this family of a single mother and her daughter.
After the grace was said, he hurried to greet them at the entrance, instinctively avoiding like a plague any contact with the long bench which bore the scarlet inscription: Repentant Bench. The first time he joined the Threshing-Floor Church, he had innocently gone and sat on it, when some well-meaning members signaled him frantically to leave. He learnt some few days later that the bench was reserved for penitent members who had committed grievous iniquities; members whom the priest said were 'dogs who had returned to their vomit.' Before he could reach them in the milling crowd, they had gone much farther away from him.
Outside, the night air welcomed him with some edifying moisture, as he made straight for his Honda Accord at the church's general car-park. Sister Agbenu was already there by the car, waiting for him, talking cheerily into her cell phone. 'You're the one not behaving like a man. If she refuses to answer your calls, give her a break for, say, a few days, okay? Let her also miss you. That's the game,' she advised.
He unlocked the car door with the ignition key, and she, still talking like a love guru, opened the side door and slid in. He waited for her to finish her conversation before he drove off, negotiating the major highway bend until they found themselves on Abubakar Burga Street where she lived.
'I'm still waiting for your answer to my proposal,' he had begun, breaking the silence that had fallen over them in the car after she had ended her call.
'But why can't you be patient? Is that how you do your things, eh Otokpa? You called me yesterday and asked me the same question. And I told you that I was still praying to seek the face of the Lord. The answer couldn't have changed in just a few hours. You can ask any man of God of this. When you propose marriage to a Sister, you don't pester her again until she has heard from God,' she said. 'What you're doing could distract me from full concentration,' she added.
'Well, what I really want to say is that if you are not fast about it, don't blame me if I go to another Sister,' came the veiled threat.
'What?' she exclaimed, greatly alarmed. 'Is this how you do your things, eh Brother Otokpa? You propose marriage to a girl this very minute and while waiting for her reply, the next minute you go to another girl?'
'Why not? That's what I'll do if your reply doesn't come on time.' She didn't deign to reply to him and lapsed into a brooding silence. Perhaps he was not a truly born-again Brother, she thought.
The rest of the drive was in a funereal atmosphere. When they got to her house, she quickly opened the side door and alighted. She banged it on him and fled away without as much as bidding him good night. He was devastated but it was momentary. Involuntarily, he brought out his phone and proceeded on the spur of the moment to compose a strongly worded message for her and pressed the 'send' button, before driving off.
His cell phone beeped some hours later when he was about to sleep. It was from Pastor Oche in Kurdi, Sister Agbenu's spiritual mentor, who had always waded in anytime there was a stormy quarrel between them like this night. Probably she had reported him to the man of God. He said he was told of what had transpired between him and Agbenu and would he mind to call her and apologize to her?
'Sister Agbenu has had too many unpalatable experiences in the past and needs time to recuperate emotionally. Please don't blame her that she is taking so long a time to hear from the Lord. It's simply because she doesn't want a repeat of being jilted by the man she loved as in the past. I'd appreciate it so much if you could call her and apologize and reverse the withdrawal of your marriage proposal. In my own case, I had to woo my wife for over two years before she agreed to marry me. Today we're happily married,' he counselled.
Otokpa didn't see any need to argue with the man of God and gave in to his entreaty. He called Agbenu and apologized to her and also reinstated his proposal. The hoarse voice that greeted him on the other end was hardly Agbenu's. He hoped she had not been crying herself sick.
'If he had not advised you to call me and apologize, would you have done so on your own accord?' she asked rather pointedly.
'Sure,' he answered, even to himself it sounded not so convincing.
'I hope you wouldn't mind if I asked you a question, Otokpa. Promise me you'll answer me sincerely.'
'Until you ask me.'
'No. You have to promise me first,' she insisted.
'Okay, I promise. Are you now satisfied?' There was a brief pause on her end.
'When we left the church this evening, all was very well and cheerful between us but all of a sudden you sent me an SMS message that you had cancelled the proposal. I mean this was not ordinary. What could actually have prompted you to do that kind of a thing? I want you to take me not only as a Sister you want to marry but also as your best friend and confidante and honestly tell me what really caused your sudden change of mood?'
In spite of her hasty and fiery temper, this girl is intelligent, Otokpa thought to himself in awe.
'Hello? Are you there?'
'I'm waiting for your answer. Talk to me, Otokpa, as your friend.'
'It was Naomi,' he blurted out before he could check himself. 'Since I saw her and her mum in the church this evening, I've not been myself. I've been feeling emotionally agitated and unsettled ever since. Once again, I'm sorry.' There was a brief pause on the other end.
'Talk to me very sincerely, Otokpa. Are you still in love with her?'
'No!' he shouted rather unnecessarily, surprised at the violence by which he barked the word, violence, no doubt, tinged with fear.
'Are you sure, Otokpa?'
'Look Sister Agbenu, I take exception to that question!'
'I see,' came her reply from the other end, hurt but controlled. 'I love you, Otokpa. Good night.'
In as much as he tried futilely to shield it with his impotent outburst, he couldn't fail to see that she had touched a sore point in him. Did he still love Sister Naomi? What happens to love deferred? Does it fester and die like a candle in the wind and is buried forever? Didn't the wisest man on earth, King Solomon in the Bible, say that love was as strong as death and jealousy as cruel as the grave? Yes, come to think of it now, the right word was 'deferred', for obviously he had not allowed one love to truly die a natural death before provoking another's. He had left Naomi not largely because of any problem he had had with her but because of her mother. As much as he hated it, he couldn't help feeling emotionally attached to her in a soul-tie kind of affection.
What would he do now to wriggle himself out of this quandary? Suddenly, he saw the way out of this seemingly intractable dilemma. Flesh and blood had not revealed this to him. Yes, he must embark on a three-day dry fasting and prayer to hear directly from the Lord on what to do next. To be or not to be.
Where they were heading , all alone, he could not now remember except that when they got to this almost dry, shin-high river, he folded his trousers right to his knees while Agbenu hitched her skirt up to avoid it getting wet. Each step they took, they noticed the river appeared to have increased correspondingly as if it was raining heavily in the nearby upland town where the river had its source. Now it was climbing steadily to their knees, above their knees, waists... The shore ahead of them was as far as where they had taken off and so the possibility of turning back was out of the question. And yet the impassive river maintained its steady rise, followed by a sudden turbulent wind which agitated it the more, thereby making the river flow more swiftly like a tsunami flood. Quickly he reached for Agbenu's hand and grasped it but it was all in vain against the debris of uprooted trees and heavy logs of wood carried by the river. Helplessly he tried to swim but his hands were heavy like lead and he couldn't wade through the water, neither were his legs, pinioned in the deep, able to tread water to keep them afloat. He knew the end had now come as they began gradually to sink. All efforts to cry for help were chokingly gagged with mouthfuls of water. And then when all hope seemed lost and it was obvious that they were on the verge of drowning, they found themselves without a speck of water on them in a palace, before a magnificent throne, reminiscent of the ancient palace of Pharaoh in the days of Moses. Seated on the high throne was the dreaded sea-god, the King of the Coast, resplendent in his royal opulence and glamour, flanked on both sides by courtiers and hefty bodyguards, armed to the teeth.
'Welcome to my kingdom, Otokpa,' said the king. 'Welcome back home, my wife,' he greeted Agbenu.
'Who are you?' asked Otokpa, surprised at how his identity was known to the king. This question amused the king so greatly such that he laughed unrestrainedly, beating his chest maniacally. His raucous laughter reverberated through the palace as though they were in an empty hall. He stopped as suddenly as he had begun, with his face hardening into a hawk-like grimace.
'This clumsy lump of clay dared to ask me: "Who are you?"' he said in mimicry and burst into uncanny laughter again which sent some cold shivers up Otokpa's spine. It rang and rang eerily in the palace. Turning to Agbenu, he said cooingly: 'Come unto me, wife. I have long waited for you, for this moment.'
'She is not going anywhere, Satan. The blood of Jesus is against you!' Otokpa challenged boldly and burst into unknown tongues of the spirit, much to the surprise and chagrin of all. 'Rakasa toriya. Maraki ha, ha. Demdera paya!' The effect was instantaneous as the entire place began to rattle as if it would collapse from its very foundations.
'Otokpa, this thing does not concern you,' wailed Agbenu, groaning in intense pains. He couldn't believe the voice he had just heard and turned to see if Agbenu, who was standing beside him, had actually uttered those words or somebody else had imitated her voice. It was Agbenu, all right, suddenly robed in royal apparel of a queen. He was shocked by this unexpected metamorphosis, just before his eyes travelled down to her legs and he screamed.
Otokpa awoke in cold sweat, still screaming into the silent night. He heaved a sigh of relief when he discovered it was all a dream. A horrible nightmare. But what a hair's breadth escape! He couldn't bring himself to associate Agbenu with a mermaid, with a tail of a fish in place of normal human legs. The Queen of the Coast? No! He heard himself shout. Or could the Lord be speaking to him through a vision? Lord, what are you saying? He enquired of the Lord like King David in the Bible when his two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail, were captured by the army of the Amalekites.
The following day, while he was still fasting, Agbenu called him on the phone and asked if they could see each other later in the evening as she had something very important to tell him. He wondered if it was her answer to his proposal. A few days ago, such news could have brought dimples of smile to his face instead of these stomach cramps. He told her to wait until he had told her of his past, of Naomi and her mother. But it appeared she couldn't wait. No sooner had he returned the phone to his breast pocket when it beeped again and he brought it out to answer it. It was Agbenu on the line again.
'Yes, what is it? I hope all is well?' he asked concernedly.
'Erm, actually what I wanted to say is that you were not the only person who proposed to me. There are several sons of Zion besides you and that was why I found it difficult to hear from the Lord on time,' came the vitriolic reply.
'In that case, I want to beg to withdraw my proposal so that it will be easier for you to hear from God,' he offered. There was uneasy silence on the other end. Silence of rumination.
'You can't say that now, Otokpa. I mean it's too late to withdraw now,' she pleaded, surprised at the unexpected reaction her hasty temper had provoked.
'That's my decision,' he reiterated with an air of finality.
'I mean you cannot pull out of the relationship without seeing Pastor David, the Assistant Pastor, because I have told him about you.'
'I'm afraid I'm not going to meet any pastor. Besides, you didn't tell me before going to see him. I'm sorry that's your funeral.'
That was how they broke up before God in His infinite mercy did a new thing in her life and recompensed her for the loss with Brother Amaechi, the youth pastor of the church. Didn't He say that 'for your shame ye shall have double?' Indeed, God is ever faithful. His awesome wonders to ponder.
The wedding announcement between Sister Agbenu and Brother Amaechi was made in the church during Sunday morning service, after barely three months of courtship and engagement, with preparation at an advanced stage. They were invited to the altar for the entire congregation to recognize them and to pray for them. And perhaps if anybody had any reason why they should not be joined in holy matrimony, such a petition should be forwarded to the Marriage Committee of the church within one week. In spite of himself, Otokpa couldn't understand the unusual haste of Agbenu to jump on the lifelong bandwagon of the married without getting to know her man very well, as if that was not where many were begging God daily to disembark from. Or was it because she was getting on in years and was desperate to be married? Thirty-two years old, if not more. No real man will waste his time to ask a lady of her age, for who will expect her to tell the gospel truth if not conjure up a fictitious one, the type some of his friends mischievously called 'footballer's age!' Well, he shrugged unconcernedly. That was her funeral.
The Prayer Warriors' intercession meeting didn't start on time today, probably due to the nation's Independence Anniversary festivities. When Otokpa arrived, he saw two or three members saying the opening prayers in anticipation of the arrival of other members. Immediately he went down on his knees to pray before joining them. Hardly had he begun when he felt a tap on his right shoulder and opened his eyes. It was the personal assistant to the senior resident pastor, the shepherd in the vineyard.
'Daddy wants to see you, Otokpa,' he whispered. Without a word, Otokpa got to his feet and followed him to the church office where he was ushered into the large, oblong-shaped office of the senior pastor, tastefully rug-carpeted and air-conditioned. Most probably the church local council was in session, deliberating over serious affairs of the church such as the proposed new church building or something of equal gravity, for what he saw could well pass for that. In attendance were zonal pastors, elders, deacons, deaconesses, unit heads and the youth pastor, Brother Amaechi. Otokpa had to muster enough courage to flash a glint of recognition and camaraderie towards Amaechi, who didn't return it, perhaps not to make light of the seriousness of the gathering.
'Sit down, Brother Otokpa,' ordered the senior pastor in a voice not too amiable, pointing at a vacant high armchair directly facing him. Otokpa obliged and sat down. The atmosphere was visibly tense.
'I've called you here to answer some grave allegations levelled against you by Brother Amaechi,' he had begun without more ado, ignoring the usual opening prayers. 'In other words, you're being charged before this high-powered church council with the allegation of rape.' Otokpa had to restrain himself with great effort from letting out a loud guffaw of derision at such preposterous allegations. Rape? Someone must be up to mischief. Or was it April Fool's Day?
'If I may ask, sir, what Sister might I be accused of raping?'
'Sister Agbenu, of course,' came the reply, matter-of-factly. 'Brother Amaechi here is laying the charge against you for raping his wife-to-be.'
'I see. And pray when was that? When did this happen?'
'Over to you, Brother Amaechi. The accused wants to know when the offence took place.'
'Praise the Lord!' began Amaechi on his feet with a raised, clenched right fist.
'Praise the name of Jesus!'
'Amen!' There was a brief silence.
'I know Brother Otokpa may be wondering why it had to be me making these allegations against him and not Sister Agbenu herself. Brethren, the incident in question had happened a few weeks before I approached her for marriage. Before then, Brother Otokpa was rather close to her and was in his carnality making amorous demands on her, all to no avail. Unfortunately for her, he took advantage of her when she visited him in his house one certain evening to request for a book that she said she needed to prepare a lesson note for the school where she was teaching. You may be surprised why I didn't bring this up till now. As a matter of fact, she confided in me just last night and her reason for not telling anybody since then was because of the stigma that is always associated with rape cases. The wanton publicity and all whatnots were the things she was trying to avoid. That's all that I have to say. Praise the Lord!' He sat down.
'Well, Brother Otokpa, you've heard the allegations against you. What have you to say in your defence?' asked the pastor. 'Remember the consequences of telling lies to God. You know what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in the Bible. Moreover, whenever we speak falsehood, we grieve the Holy Spirit in us and God is not in us. He said whoever nameth the name of the Lord must depart from iniquity which makes us fall short of the glory of God. Should the trumpets of the Lord sound now, where will you be? Will you be found wanting or worthy of being caught away in a rapture along with the saints of the Lord? Also remember that the Scriptures say that through the mouths of two or more people is a matter established.'
Otokpa couldn't see the need for this holy, impassioned diatribe. Was he already presumed guilty before his trial or what? How could his evidence stand up against Sister Agbenu's, a dedicated and tongue-speaking daughter of Zion and the evidence of the firebrand youth pastor, Brother Amaechi?
'Before I say anything,' he began, 'may I request that Sister Agbenu be invited?'
'Why not? Isn't she the chief witness and victim in this case?' asked the pastor rhetorically. And with a quick press of the buzzer, his personal assistant appeared. 'Call Sister Agbenu for me.'
'Yes, sir.' And he was gone.
Presently, the personal assistant re-appeared with a much-changed Sister Agbenu, frail-looking with her face covered in ugly red blotches. Could he have loved this girl before enough to propose marriage to her? Otokpa wondered. Despite himself, his heart was deeply moved in pity for her.
'Here we are, beloved,' said the pastor. 'The principal accuser and victim is here. Over to you, Brother Otokpa.'
'Thank you, sir. Erm... Sister Agbenu, what is this that I'm hearing that you're alleging that I did to you? I want you to tell everybody here that it is not true that I raped you. Tell the whole world the truth and shame the devil.'
'You've no shame, Brother Otokpa,' she said in a high-pitched voice. 'If like Amnon, the son of David who defiled his sister Tamar, you'll have the bare-faced cheek to ask me that question in spite of what you did to me, eh?'
'Wait a minute, Sister Agbenu. This sin that you said I committed against you, where was it? Did I violate you in my house or where?
'May the good Lord forgive you of your sins, Brother Otokpa. You're totally shameless to ask me that heartless question. You've cheated me in this life and you dared to ask me where, eh? Where is your fear of God if you call yourself a born-again believer? You've stolen my virtue as a woman and yet you're not satisfied. You've to gloat over it by asking me those stupid questions. Eh, what have I done to you son of perdition that you have to ruin my life?' She burst into tears of anguish. She cried disconsolately, pulling at her hair pathetically. Otokpa wondered whether this was another nightmare that he was having which he might wake up from or a circus-show. Now the pastor was saying something and he strained his ears to hear it.
'Well, well, beloved, do we need any further evidence than this?' he stated rather than asked. Turning to Otokpa, he said: 'You may go.'
Dazed beyond words, Otokpa found it difficult to shake off the feeling of inertia that had suddenly come upon him. His legs were as numb and lifeless as lead. He wished the ground under him could open wide and swallow him up. In the hush that had fallen over the office, all eyes were fixed on him, condemning him, a dog that had gone back to its vomit. And like a dog, he left the office with his tail in-between his legs.
'God told Moses to tell the children of Israel to sanctify themselves, for behold He would visit them. For until you're sanctified, thoroughly purged of your sins, the spotless Lamb of God has no place in you and you're not meet for the Master's use. Without holiness, it is impossible to see God. He says: "be ye perfect for I am perfect." My eyes cannot behold iniquity. Because of iniquity, the household of Achan, the son of Carmi, was completely wiped out. And so was the priest Eli. His line was totally exterminated because iniquity was found in him, when he couldn't roundly rebuke his two sons of their sins. Until our first parents, Adam and Eve, sinned, they were not naked let alone did they hide themselves from the presence of the Lord among the trees of the garden. Sin is a reproach any time, any day. It begets shame. In fact, nothing separates us from God like our sins. It's an enemy that will always undo the sinner. But beloved, I've glad tidings for someone out there. As if God knew that by our Adamic nature we could not prevail over the enemy called sin, for "by strength shall no man prevail," He sent us the Holy Spirit to help our infirmities, to quicken our mortal bodies, the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead. Amen. The Scriptures say in the Book of Matthew, chapter three verse twelve: "Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Hallelujah! Rika yamasotoriya karma. Mansani, mansani rabakura soto! The Holy Spirit has just told me to tell someone out there under the sound of my voice that if our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, Mount Zion is His threshing-floor. Hallelujah!' He paused theatrically, bleary eyes glazed in ecstasy. 'If the Scriptures say that the eyes of God are so pure that they cannot behold iniquity, then woe is me if I condone it because the Scriptures make me to understand that I'm a god: "If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken." Whoa! Hallelujah! If we are gods because we are the children of the Most High God, then it behoves on us to live it, behave it and think it! He says whosoever covereth his iniquity shall not prosper. As the shepherd over this humble threshing-floor, woe is me if I should ever shirk in my responsibility by hiding or condoning the iniquities of the sheep of whom the good Lord has deemed it fit to entrust in my hands. It was only at the synagogue, the threshing-floor, that Christ was ever suffered to use the whip.'
There was total silence intermingled with palpable tension in the church as the priest brought out a bulky black book to the altar and opened it.
'My Bible tells me that the judgment of the Lord shall begin from his own house. Amen,' came the usual preamble to something more foreboding.
'Amen,' chorused the congregation and lapsed into silence, waiting in great anticipation of what might follow next.
It was not enough, continued the priest, citing copiously from the Scriptures, to ask for forgiveness after the commission of a sin, the believer's albatross to the glory of God, there must needs be a purgatory stage of expiation before full restitution. Was the Saviour of the world not flagellated when he was carrying the sins of the whole world? Since the eyes of God were too pure to behold sin, much less from His Son, did He not desert Christ on the Cross of Calvary enough to make him cry: 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? 'If God could not spare His only begotten Son when he was carrying the sins of the world, woe is me if I spare the rod and spoil the child.' He went on to narrate how Sister Agbenu went to Brother Otokpa's house to collect a book that she needed to prepare a lesson note for the school where she taught, but little did she know that he was not a truly born-again son of Zion but a wolf in sheep's clothing! He defiled her the way Schechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, defiled Dinah, the daughter of Jacob in the Bible. And in the hallowed tradition of the church, Otokpa was granted the right of fair hearing by the high-powered committee set up by the church council, and after a fair and impartial trial, was found guilty as charged.
'By the authority of heaven vested in me as the shepherd over this humble threshing-floor, I hereby command Brother Otokpa to leave wherever he's sitting now and go and sit on the mercy seat with immediate effect.'
A sudden hush fell over the congregation such that one could almost hear the loud flapping wings of a butterfly. From where Otokpa sat close to the deacons' section in the church-hall, he could feel the eyes of the sanctimonious congregation boring into him as it waited with bated breath for his next line of action, whether he would leave his seat for the mercy seat bearing the scarlet legend: Repentant Bench. His eyes strayed towards Sister Agbenu, who was seated in a statuesque manner, with her two hands folded on her lap. Her face was expressionless like the stagnant water in a lagoon. What irked him most was the holier-than-thou sneer he saw playing on Brother Amaechi's lips, coupled with the look of sheer contentment on his face. From where Naomi sat with her mother, he could see the great empathy on her face, a picture of vicarious tragedy.
'Is Brother Otokpa not hearing what I am saying? Or would he rather the ushers assisted him to the mercy seat?' warned the priest.
The congregation held its breath with anticipation at what Otokpa would do next. He got slowly to his feet and made for the mercy seat with his Bible and jotter. The congregation sighed aloud with relief. In fact, a member who could not contain this apparent triumph of the spirit over flesh, shouted: 'Praise the Lord!' to mild response from the congregation. Otokpa paused briefly at the mercy seat and without saying a word exited the church-hall through the large back entrance door at the extreme opposite of the altar.
He heard somebody call his name. He turned and saw Naomi running towards him, panting. He was almost at the giant gates of the church's premises.
He stopped, without turning. Presently, she caught up with him.
'I believe in you, Otokpa,' she'd begun, rather breathlessly. 'I know you didn't do it.'
Involuntarily he reached for her left shoulder with much feeling as if to say: 'Thank you' for trusting him despite all odds. All hope was not lost after all. At least one person out of the entire congregation of the dead believed in him. Without replying, he walked away.